Heah Come Da (Hamburger) Judge!

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Sentinel Publisher Chris Carosa presents a signed copy of his book Hamburger Dreams to Best NY Burger winners, son Matt Beach and father Randy Beach, of the Ale ’n Angus Pub in Syracuse. To the left is Jean O’Toole, Executive Director of the New York Beef Industry Council, sponsor of the event.

It was a driving rain, which is actually OK if you’re driving in it. Which I was. But soon wouldn’t be.

I snaked through the meandering roads of the expansive Onondaga Community College campus, peering through the rain-fogged windows desperately searching for “Visitors Parking” between Lot 6 and Lot 7. The place was packed with cars.

Suddenly, the brake lights of a small foreign car parked ahead blinked on. I had my chance. The vehicle backed out and sailed away. I quickly maneuvered to seize the empty space. But, before I could pull in I slammed on my own brakes.

At the end of the spot stood an ominous sign. It warned “30 minute parking only.”

I was already late. It was 2:45pm and I was told the event wouldn’t end until 7:00pm at the earliest. Should I risk getting a ticket or find another space somewhere in the hinterland of Lot 7? The steady drumbeat of dropping plops made the decision for me. I pulled into the newly vacated spot.

I turned the car off and sat for a moment. I eyed the downpour splashing against my now translucent windshield. I eyed the distance between my car and the nearest door to the Gordon Student Center. Finally, I eyed my nice blazer and the tie I wore (one of my favorites). I sighed and accepted my fate.

Time to jump into the deep end.

Zipping up my raincoat, I flipped its hood over my head, opened my car door, and, in one simultaneous move, slammed the door shut and darted for the campus center. I ducked inside and immediately asked how I might find the Stone Wall.

“Take the elevator down to the first floor then head on straight to the end of the hallway. It’s on your left.”

Now, before you get your knickers up, the eatery is named for the floor-to-ceiling stone wall at its entrance. Walking in, I was immediately greeted with Jean O’Toole’s beaming smile. Jean’s the Executive Director of the New York Beef Industry Council. She had organized the “Best NY Burger” contest and the finalists were cooking their concoctions in the restaurant even as I entered.

When Jean found out I wrote the book on the history of the hamburger (Hamburger Dreams: How Classic Crime Solving Techniques Helped Crack the Case of America’s Greatest Culinary Mystery, Pandamensional Solutions, Inc., 2018), she immediately did two things. First, she bought the book and read it. Then, she invited me to be a judge in the contest.

As I ambled into the cavernous (thanks to the stone wall) restaurant, I couldn’t help but think of comedian Flip Wilson’s popular “Heah comes da judge” bit. I sang it in my head.

Heah come da judge…
Heah come da judge…
Ya betta watch out…
‘cuz heah come da judge…
da Hamburger Judge!

(OK, I added that last part.)

Jean introduced me to the other judges. The first was Daniel Berman of Albany who’s a local food blogger. Dan’s snappy Fussy Little Blog is a worthy read, even if you aren’t in a position to know Albany food emporiums. He’s also the Capitol District Yelp Ambassador (yes, I asked him about that South Park episode and, yes, he told me it could never happen in real life).

I then shook the hand of Jacob Pucci, food and dining writer at The Syracuse Post-Standard. Well, you know me, and you know I immediately asked him about joining the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Of course, being the “host city” judge, I also had to talk to him about Dinosaur BBQ. Ever knowledgeable of food, he mentioned the Central New York proclivity to place meat on their hamburgers (and, no, we’re not talking about bacon or even another burger patty). More on this later.

Next Jean introduced me to Kita Roberts. Kita’s from Maine, but she’s a food blogger that goes by the name of GirlCarnivore.com. It’s chock full of recipes, including a large variety of burger medleys. This is very convenient for me. When I’m interviewed about my book, I’m invariably asked about hamburger recipes. Now I have a place to direct them. Kita impresses me for another reason. She grabbed the domain name BurgerMonth.com before anyone else.

Finally, the last judge was Kenneth Krutz. He’s the general manager of Empire Livestock Marketing. I’m sure he, like many other red-blooded Americans, cooks hamburgers, but he was the only one among us to actually make hamburgers. Hamburgers on the hoof, that is. Talking to him, I imagined myself in some John Wayne movie, guiding a herd of steers up the Chisholm Trail for auction in Kansas City.

All the other judges had hands-on experience in the hamburger industry. Except me. I was merely the “Hamburger Historian.” So, when the first of eight burgers came to our judging table (two of the ten finalists couldn’t make it), I’m sure you could understand what was going through my mind.

What was I doing here? I felt like I was out of my league. One of the other judges asked for my favorite hamburger recipe. All I could respond was, “My mother’s the home economist in the family. I’m just the taste tester.”

I did, however, know enough not to eat the entire burger, but to merely take 2-3 bites. The officials provided us with a knife and a fork, so I was able to surgically remove portions of the servings’ core to ensure each bite contained all the ingredients offered.

Each burger was given a number, not a name. We didn’t know the actual contestant. Anonymity helped prevent any direct or indirect bias for our local entries (Syracuse and Rochester both had two entries and Albany had one). For example, I knew CB Craft Brewers had an entry, but I didn’t know which one it was.

All the burgers were delightful. The only downside was the requirement they all be cooked to a minimum of 165°. The judges preferred medium rare. We liked our burgers nice and juicy!

It turned out we also liked the CB Craft Brewers, too (it’s scored in the top 4, making it eligible for a prize visit). Called the “MacBubba Burger,” it contains everything – and I mean everything. Think garbage plate on a burger. Normally I don’t like garbage plates, but this burger was amazing. All the different tastes blended together and complimented each other very well. If you haven’t tried one, you should.

For the second year in a row (albeit with a different entry), the winning burger came from the Ale ‘n Angus Pub in Syracuse. Called the “Beef on Weck” burger, it’s literally a Beef on Weck with a hamburger foundation. This is an example of the “meat-on-a-burger” concept popular in Syracuse.

Besides the mandatory Kimmelweck roll, it’s served with a homemade horseradish sauce and cheddar cheese. It tastes like a hearty (but delicious) Beef on Weck. Owner Randy Beach came up with the idea because a lot of Buffalo people come to watch the Syracuse Crunch.

For this hamburger historian, The New York Beef Industry Council’s Best NY Burger contest proved to be a most tasty slice of history.

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